The English Background
A Puritan Death:
John and Thomasine Winthrop
The first European immigrants to the United States carried with them Old World ideas and
experiences that influenced the way they farmed their land, organized their governments, and
worshiped their deity. One of these imported customs was the Puritan faith, a product of the
Protestant Reformation. Nourished in thousands of European homes in the early seventeenth
century, Puritanism grew to maturity in its native environment before it was brought to
America. It taught men and women how to honor God and deal justly with one another, how
to live fully on earth and prepare bravely for heaven. A living faith, it entered the lives of John
Winthrop, a founder of Massachusetts, and his wife, Thomasine, molding their daily thoughts
and preparing them for their separation in death.
Chapter 3: The English Background
The county of Suffolk, England, was a region of great beauty and industry. During the fall of 1616,
travelers walking or riding horses along one of the narrow lanes that led from town to town would have
been impressed by the meadows dotted with sheep, the fields of dark soil newly plowed for winter
crops, and the fine villages. They would see men and women busy at their tasks: farmers plowing
fields behind sturdy horses; dairymaids cleaning stalls and preparing milk, butter, and cheese;
housewives making soap or gathering herbs from house gardens; woodsmen cutting timber; and
townspeople weaving cloth. In a tavern the visitor might hear men discussing their fields, orchards, and
livestock; the land dispute between Smith and Sibley; the marriage of the daughter of a local nobleman;
or the religious situation in Germany.
If they had an eye for such things, visitors could also see God in Suffolk County. The Lord was not as
discernible as apples or woolens. But He moved over the land, preserving a good person from a bad fall,
prospering the fruit crops, punishing a recalcitrant sinner, and engendering a sense of peace and joy in a
believer's heart. It was possible, of course, to live one's life without being aware of God. Many men and
women conducted themselves—their planting and harvesting, cooking and cleaning, begetting and child
rearing—as if there were no God. But many others were aware of the presence of the Lord and
worshiped him in their homes and churches. Occasionally one of the people of Suffolk left his or her
trim cottage and pleasant fields to dwell in heaven with the Lord. Such a person was Thomasine
Winthrop, wife of John Winthrop of Groton Manor. In fall 1616 she would die in childbirth, a common
event in seventeenth-century England. In those times one could not enter pregnancy without realizing
that death, as well as new life, might be the issue. There is nothing unusual in the fact of Thomasine
Winthrop's passing, but if her death in childbirth was commonplace, the record of it is not. Her husband,
John, reported the incident in minute detail; his account allows us to stand beside Thomasine in her final days,
see people enter and leave her chamber, and listen to the words and gestures exchanged between husband and
wife. It also tells us something about the world Thomasine left behind and enables us to study a presence as
real as any of these physical events, the relationship between John and Thomasine and their Puritan God.
John and Thomasine were both children of East Anglian gentry. In the mid-sixteenth century John's
grandfather, Adam, had purchased a church property known as Groton Manor when Henry VIII sought
to further the Reformation and enrich himself by dissolving the monasteries. A second Adam Winthrop,
John's father, inherited the manor.
John Winthrop was born in 1588, the year the English defeated the Spanish Armada. The England
he grew up in was changing rapidly. In
A Puritan Death: John and Thomasine Wintbrop "v" 41
due half century after 1575 there was a fivefold to tenfold increase in the production of coal, salt, iron,
steel, lead, ships, and glass. In addition, industries were established producing copper, brass, paper,
soap, sugar, and tobacco. The English began to form great trading companies to tap the wealth of Asia,
Africa, and America. Economic historians generally characterize this era of growth as England's first
industrial revolution. The energy and resourcefulness that sent miners into the bowels of the earth and
drove merchant traders halfway around the world was also reflected in England's nationalism. The defeat
of the Spanish Armada had established England as one of the preeminent powers in Europe. When
Shakespeare's John of Gaunt called England "This dear, dear .and," he was articulating the feelings of
most of his countrymen.
These developments in the outside world were not all found, however, it Groton Manor. The Winthrops'
involvement in the market economy was on a small scale. When John's mother, Anne, sent to his father in
London a woolen shirt and five pairs of socks to sell, she added, "If you would have any for your own
wearing, I have more a knitting." Such economic changes as the increase in paper and iron manufacturing
might have made it easier to acquire a new Bible or plow, but most of the products at Groton Manor were
made locally in ways that had changed little over the centuries.
The land where the Winthrops lived •was in the southern part of Suf-rolk County, near the border of
Essex. The rolling countryside was covered with rich farmland, green marshes, ponds, and forests of oak,
beech, and willow trees. The county was the first in England to enclose its fields, and the land was
intersected with innumerable hedgerows that served as fences. It was noted for its mutton, beef, butter,
and cheese. It was a pastoral land, but the white gulls that fed at the Groton ponds often reminded the
people that the sea was only a few miles away.
The Winthrops produced most of what they consumed. John's father, Adam, kept careful accounts of
everything he bought and sold on the manor, most of his payments going to men who worked the land—
a tew shillings for mowing, digging a ditch, harvesting grain, or thatching a roof. They purchased only a
few products: shoes, a plow, nails, paper. Income came from the lands they rented to tenants and from
the sale of surplus produce such as grain, wood, and livestock.
John was raised on the manor until age fifteen, when he went to Cambridge to attend Trinity
College. He stayed at Cambridge for only two years, returning at age seventeen to help his father
manage Groton Manor. He so impressed his parents with his maturity that they consented to his
marriage to Mary Forth, the twenty-year-old daughter of a neighboring gentryman. John and Mary lived
together for ten years until her death in 1615, when she left him with four children.
Although John lamented Mary's passing, in those days a bereaved spouse seldom remained single for
long. Marriage was a practical as well
42 "v" Chapter 3: The English Background
as a personal and romantic relationship, for a wife's help was essential in raising children and overseeing
a household. Thus, shortly after Mary's death John began courting Thomasine Clopton, whom he
undoubtedly knew already. She was the daughter of William Clopton, squire of a nearby estate. The
couple was married in fall 1615. Thomasine was a good wife, "industrious," "plainhearted," and
"patient of injuries." She showed her love of God in public and private worship and cared for John's
children as if they were her own. John was so attracted to her that he would recall after her death their
affection "had this only inconvenience, that it made me delight too much in her to enjoy her long."
During their year together John and Thomasine spent most of their time in the day-to-day tasks of
managing their country estate. The Winthrop papers and descriptions of other households allow us to
draw a picture of their life. On a typical spring day they would awake with the crowing of the cock.
They would dress quickly in their chilly room and hurry downstairs to a warm fire prepared by the
servants. John's four children would soon arrive and huddle near the flames to warm themselves as
servants came in from the kitchen. Each morning Winthrop read to the family from the Bible and offered
a prayer asking for God's favor in the day ahead.
After this simple service, parents, children, and servants sat down at a large table near the fire and
began to eat. The presence of servants at the family table was customary in households like the
Winthrops'. It •was only in a later period that the lives of the servants and masters were sharply divided.
Servants at Groton Manor were subject to the same discipline and much of the same training as John's
own children. In many households servants were included in such family activities as card games.
Advertisements for help sometimes even stipulated that the prospective employee should be adept at
cards. In 1616 John had decided that cards were not a proper pastime in a Christian household, but he
did share other activities with his servants.
At breakfast John and Thomasine might discuss the day's activities with the children and servants.
After they finished the meal, John would be likely to tour the manor to see that all was in order,
inspecting cattle and pigs and supervising his servants in the fields or woodlot. On many spring
mornings the air was damp and cold, but there were pleasant days when the sun broke through the clouds
to the east and the wind bore the scent of salt water from the North Sea. Since most physical labor at
Groton was done by servants, Winthrop could devote time to studying the Bible and performing
religious works. We may imagine him retiring to his study after touring the manor.
Thomasine would probably supervise the domestic chores, seeing that the rooms were dusted, the
floors swept, the butter churned, and
A Puritan Death: John and Thomasine Winthrop "v" 43
the meals prepared. She might attend personally to a garden of flowers, vegetables, and herbs. Whereas
the men supervised grain cultivation, English women usually planted radishes, beets, carrots, cabbage,
cucumbers, onions, melons, parsley, and other garden crops.
At noon the cook would ring a bell summoning the household for the main meal of the day.
Afterward, glad to have the excuse to ride through the country lanes, leading a small packhorse as he
went, John might visit a neighboring tenant to collect rent in the form of grain. If the tenant were also a
friend, they might discuss last Sunday's sermon, both men recognizing their Christian duty to extend the
religious training of the Sabbath through the week.
At the manor Thomasine and the servants might spend the afternoon washing clothes, an arduous
task performed only once monthly. They must first carry water by hand and then heat it over the fire
and pour it into a large tub, where dirty clothes were soaped and scrubbed. Once Thomasine and the
servants had thoroughly cleaned the clothes, they would put them in a second tub to rinse and hang
them on a line. All the women, including Thomasine, would take turns at the work. At supper the
family might discuss the day's events. John would again read from the Bible, and they would sing a
In spring 1616 Thomasine learned that she was pregnant. She and her husband must have often
discussed the new baby, John "wondering whether she felt well, and Thomasine worried about the older
children's reaction to a new brother or sister. John might have told her, as he later wrote in his diary, that
his children already loved her like a mother.
On the surface, life at Groton Manor seems a kind of agrarian paradise. The family is close;
everyone is well fed, clothed, and housed; the men and women spend their days in honest toil. There is,
however, another side to life at Groton. Like human beings of other times and places, John and
Thomasine were troubled by domestic and political problems.
Most of the Winthrops' servants were reliable, but some were not. Thomasine characterized one as a
"stubborne wenche" and believed another had been spoiled by a background of "badd servinge" in an
alehouse. The world around them presented other problems. Families once wealthy were ruined by new
economic forces. Changes in land use threw men out of work and filled the roads with "sturdy
beggars," men physically able to work but unable to find employment. Some turned to petty crime—
John's father, Adam Winthrop, was robbed at least once by "false knaves." His diary includes frequent
references to violence in the neighborhood—assaults, murders, suicides. Disease also scourged the
country, sometimes killing large numbers in epidemics.
44 "v" Chapter 3: The English Background
In a world full of confusion and change the Winthrop's' God provided them with a sense of peace
and stability. John and Thomasine believed that they should think constantly about their relationship to
God rather than become overly absorbed in the joys and sorrows of everyday life. John and Thomasine
believed in salvation by faith, the main doctrine of the Protestant Reformation on the Continent and in
England. The Reformation had begun with Martin Luther's conviction that people must be saved by
God's grace rather than by their own good works. The emphasis on grace was absorbed by John Calvin,
who in turn influenced the early English Reformers. Under Queen Elizabeth, who ruled England in the
latter part of the sixteenth century, and King James, who reigned in the first quarter of the seventeenth,
the doctrine of salvation by faith held a high position in English worship. Some Englishmen did want
further reformation of the church, but most were willing to accept the status quo. John Winthrop and
others like him would eventually disagree with the church policies of the 1620s and identify themselves
as "Puritan" opponents of the established religion, but in his early years his piety was nourished by
Church of England ministers.
We can better understand Puritanism, and the elusive doctrine of faith, if we survey its influence on
John Winthrop as recorded in his papers. At age ten he had come to have "some notions of God," but he
characterized himself as being "lewdly disposed," "wild and dissolute," and dominated by a "voluptuous
heart." This description does not mean that he spent his time drinking, whoring, and stealing. In fact, the
only youthful sin he specifically mentions in his later writings is the theft of two books as a small boy.
When Winthrop refers to himself as possessing a "voluptuous heart," he is probably describing his
imagination rather than his actual behavior. Although mere thoughts may not seem to qualify as
"dissolute behavior" today, this failure to master his desires grieved Winthrop. He believed that a good
Christian would discipline his heart and think about God in all his free moments. There was sin, he
believed, in "all such works as are done to fulfill the will of the flesh rather than of the spirit."
By age eighteen John Winthrop was deeply perturbed about his spiritual condition. Now for the first
time the word came into his "heart with power." He would walk for miles to hear a good sermon, and he
developed a reputation for giving spiritual advice to others. But he also became too proud, and because
he realized that without Christ's grace all his good works could not save him, he began to despair,
feeling that perhaps he was only a hypocrite. Throughout his twenties Winthrop's religious life consisted
of alternating periods of assurance and doubt. He abandoned hunting and cards because he felt that they
interfered with his religious life. He attempted
t:o devote more time to prayer, meditation, and religious reading but frequently failed to meet his own
high standards of conduct. He accused himself of having become too frivolous in his relationships with
friends .and of having eaten and drunk more than was appropriate. Once he condemned himself because
during a church service his mind wandered to a journey he was about to take into Essex, and soon he was
"possessed with the world." He sought to "tame his heart" by regulating his diet, singing psalms while
traveling, and reading religious tracts. But he found t h a t complete abstinence from the pleasures of the
world left him "melancholy" and "dumpish." He discovered that complete asceticism was as destructive
to his spiritual equilibrium as excessive worldliness. The problem was to find a moderate course
between these two extremes. The Puritans had a phrase that aptly described their relationship to material
pleasures: "Wine is from God, but drunkenness is from the devil."
The goal of Winthrop's constant self-regulation was a relationship with Christ that he could feel.
Puritans believed that grace came when one preferred heavenly to earthly treasures. Moments of spiritual
illumination were rare but compelling. In 1612, for example, after comforting .in old man with spiritual
advice, Winthrop went to bed and dreamed that he was with Christ. "I was so ravished with his love
towards me," he writes, "that being awakened it had made so deep impression in my heart, as I was
forced to immeasurable weepings for a great while."
Despite the experience of such periods of ecstatic acceptance, John often felt that he was too
concerned with the world. His religious life was a constant struggle to "tame" his heart to complete
service to God. On the manor he was responsible for overseeing a complex economy, planting crops,
buying and selling livestock, gathering rents, and a dozen other duties. But important as these activities
were, when he wrote about his own life or went to bed at the end of the day, his greatest worry was
frequently whether his rebellious heart had indulged itself too much in the world.
We know less about Thomasine's religious life than we do about John's, but it is apparent that she
too was a serious Christian and believed that salvation came through God's grace. John later praised her
for her reverent attention to religious services at home and in church and remarked that she avoided "all
evil" herself and reproved sin in others. Undoubtedly on many evenings after they had discussed crops,
children, or servants, they would end the day by praying or reading Scripture. Together they would
pursue the path of moderation.
John and Thomasine thus spent their days attending to matters temporal and spiritual. The year 1616
progressed from season to season. In the summer there were bright days interrupted by occasional sharp
storms of thunder and lightning. Then came time to harvest and thresh the wheat. In October gray clouds
hung over the countryside, and the crisp night air and the geese flying overhead announced the approach
of winter. The hearth with its crackling fire drew the family to it in the morning. John and Adam dragged
their main pond, catching carp for dinner. In preparation for winter the family salted fish and pressed
apples into cider to store in the cold cellar.
Now that Thomasine was pregnant, she was less active. She occupied her days by preparing for the
new baby, making blankets and a bunting. She also spent more time with the children, playing games and
helping them read. In November she had difficulty moving and sleeping comfortably. Then on Saturday,
November 30, she felt that her time had arrived. John summoned a midwife, who came to the house with
several neighbor women. They heated kettles of water and encouraged Thomasine, who bore her pains
patiently and asked constantly about the child. People would later remark "how careful she was" for the
life of the baby in her travail. At last the infant was born, a tiny girl. She was washed by the women and
then placed alongside her mother. John now entered the chamber and sat beside Thomasine and their new
daughter. He offered prayers of thanks for the safe delivery.
That night John slept in a separate room, leaving Thomasine under the watchful eye of a "keeper," a
woman who made sure that mother and child were well. On the following morning, a Sunday, John
arose early and came to the room. When Thomasine awoke, he sat with her and prayed for the
continuing health of his wife and daughter. After breakfast John, his parents, and the other children went
Later that Sunday the child began to weaken, and on Monday morning the Winthrops' new daughter
was dead. John later reported that Thomasine took the child's death with "patience," by which he meant
that she accepted the loss as God's will. Thinking of Thomasine's earlier worry about the baby girl,
people now "marveled" at her ability to accept her death.
But John had little time to think about the loss of his infant daughter. Thomasine now became ill,
suffering from a violent fever and a cough. The next morning these symptoms were allayed, but she was
hoarse, her mouth was sore, and her throat bled. John began to fear for her life and on Wednesday sent
for his cousin, a doctor.
When she heard that a physician was coming, Thomasine told John that she expected to die. His
account of their conversation at this moment is so detailed that we can virtually hear their words.
Frequently, ill persons were not told the truth about their ailments for fear of upsetting them, but
Thomasine did not wish to be deceived. "John," she said, "when cousin Duke comes, I hope that he will
deal plainly with me and not fill me with vain hopes."
Forced by his wife to acknowledge the seriousness of her condition, John began to cry. Thomasine was
moved by his concern and begged him "to be contented" — to accept her condition with patience — "for
you break my heart," she said, "with your grieving."
John replied, "I can do no less when I fear to be stripped of such a blessing."
Bedridden, seriously ill, Thomasine sought to comfort her husband. John later recalled that "always
when she perceived me to mourn for her, she would entreat and persuade me to be contented, telling me
that she did love me well, and if God would let her live with me, she would Endeavour to show it more."
She urged him to pray for her and stay as near as possible.
At noon Thursday the doctor arrived, and after examining Thomasine he declared that her condition
was dangerous. When John told her this, she was "no whit moved at it, but was as comfortably resolved
whether to live or to die." In this condition of resignation, of willingness :o accept life or death from God,
she fell asleep. She awoke at midnight, and feeling that death was near called to John to help her prepare.
She wanted also to see her two ministers and other friends and so desired "that the bell might ring for
her." In the early morning hours neighbors came one by one to talk by candlelight "quietly and
comfortably" with Thomasine. Then the bell began to ring. John tells us, "Some said it was the 4 o'clock
bell, but she conceiving that they sought to conceal it from her, that it did ring for her, she said they
needed not, for it did not trouble her."
The ringing of the bell was a traditional way of telling a community that someone was critically ill.
It allowed men and women in and around Groton who knew of Thomasine's illness to visit her or say
prayers or simply think of her. The bell did not always announce a person's death — some for whom it
rang recovered — but it always meant that the community might be losing one of its members. It was
with this tradition in mind that the seventeenth-century English poet John Donne concluded a meditation
on the interdependence of humanity with the line, "never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls
In a small community like Groton, everyone knew for whom the bell tolled, and eventually the two
ministers and more friends arrived. Then the Reverend Mr. Sands appeared, Thomasine "reached him her
hand, being glad of his coming." He questioned her about various religious matters and was surprised at
the maturity of her answers. He said t h a t he had "taken her always for a harmless young woman" but did
not expect to find her so well "grounded" in religion. The second minister was impressed with her
patience in the face of death and her "great com-fort in God" and concluded "that her life had been so
innocent and harmless as the devil could find nothing to lay to her charge."
At six o'clock the next morning the doctor came again. First he concluded that she had "received her
death's wound" in the night but might languish for another day or two. Then, after feeling her pulse, he
said that there was "some hope left." During the day Thomasine improved, and her next night was good;
she "began to entertain some thought of life, and so," says John, "did most of us who were about her."
On Saturday, however, her condition worsened. She felt cold and told John to set his heart at rest;
now, she said, "I am but a dead woman." She believed that her left hand was already dead and could not
be persuaded that it was merely numb because she had slept on it. When John asked Thomasine to
replace her gloves—in keeping with tradition, she was completely dressed—she at first refused, saying
that it was vanity to cover a dead hand, but then she consented to please her husband.
In the next few hours she became increasingly disturbed. She complained of pain in her breast and
appeared distracted. She believed that she was fighting with Satan; in her struggle she spat, clenched her
teeth, fixed her eyes, and shook her head. Then she became calm, lifted herself in bed, and prayed
"earnestly that she might glorify God, although it were in hell." She exhorted those around her to serve
God and asked that the window curtains be opened. Formerly she had wanted them closed, but now she
Now certain that she would die, she asked to see each member of her family one at a time to give
them her final advice. Her parting words to her sister included admonitions to serve God, marry for
religious rather than worldly considerations, avoid lying, and raise her children well. Then she spoke to
her mother, remarking that she, Thomasine, was the first child her mother would bury, and praying that
she would not be "discomforted." Her mother, a pious woman, replied, "I have no cause to be
discomforted. You will go to a better place, and you will be with your father again." The thought must
have comforted the mother, but Thomasine, perhaps overly self-righteous now, said that since she would
go to God she would be with "a better father than her earthly father."
She next spoke to members of John's family, thanking his parents for their kindness and blessing
the children. She spoke to the servants, praising some and scolding others, and encouraging them to
behave well and to observe the Sabbath. Finally, she told the woman who had served as her keeper not to
blame herself if she died.
Thomasine was still in great pain. Her breasts were so swollen that her friends cut her waistcoat to
give her some relief. She uttered many prayers and urged those around her to prepare to die, telling
them they did not know "how sharp and bitter the pangs of death were." Reflecting on the church, she
asked God to "bless good ministers, and convert such ill ones as did belong to him, and weed out the
It was apparent that "God had given her victory" in her spiritual struggle. In the afternoon her pains
lessened, and she told John she expected to live for another twenty-four hours. Through the afternoon and
evening he read the Scriptures to her. Thomasine was attentive, asking John "earnestly" to read on
whenever he paused and remarking on his texts. "This is comfortable," or "This is a sweet psalm," she
In the evening the Reverend Mr. Sands came and prayed. Thomasine took him by the hand to say
farewell. John retired, leaving his wife :n the care of a woman who continued to read to her into the
night. Thomasine frequently asked about John, and at two o'clock on Sunday morning he got up and
came to her again.
At times Thomasine again had doubts about her conversion, saying :nat the devil wanted her to cast
off her "subjection" to her husband. At r.oon, when others were at dinner, John and Thomasine continued
to talk. lohn assured her of Christ's love for her and told her "how she should sup v. ith Christ in paradise
that night." From Groton Manor in Suffolk, Eng-.And, she would actually go into the presence of
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, And the other patriarchs, apostles, and saints. This thought so encouraged
Thomasine that she said, "if life were set before her she would not take it."
Thomasine and John conversed throughout the afternoon. He told :her that the previous day had been
the first anniversary of their marriage A nd that now she was going to Christ, who would "embrace her
with Another manner of love." She misunderstood him and replied, "O hus-band, I must not love thee as
After a while she could no longer speak but lay back, her eyes "steadfastly" on John as he spoke to
her about the promises of the gospel and the "happy estate" she was "entering into." If he paused, she
would signal him feebly with her hands, urging him to continue. A minister came to pray with her at five
o'clock on Sunday afternoon. At the end of the prayer she sighed and fell "asleep in the Lord." Three
days later she was buried beside John's first wife in Groton chancel. Her child was taken from its tiny
grave and laid by her.
Thomasine's death led John to a period of intense self-scrutiny. He regarded his loss as punishment
from God. This was a typical Puritan response to the death of a loved one. One had to recognize his or her
dependence on Christ in order to be saved. One sought, but frequently could not find, this sense of
dependence. But the death of a loved one proved the frailty of human life and led one to seek the God
who transcended human life. During Thomasine's illness John had felt his heart "humbled and God's free
mercy in Christ more open to me than at any time before to my remembrance."
Although he does not tell us exactly what happened in the moments immediately after Thomasine
died, we can readily imagine his behavior.
Groton Church. In small English parish churches such as this men and women like John and Thomasine Winthrop first
encountered the Puritan God. Many, like John Winthrop, took their faith to the New World.
He must comfort his children, who had come to regard Thomasine as
their own mother. He would encourage and exhort everyone: Thomasine
had died bravely; she was now in heaven; God had his reason for taking
her and must be loved. As he spoke his mind must have been feverish
with thought: She is dead, God has punished me, I have relied too much
on worldly comforts, I will not set my mind on the world again. This life is
transitory. Our home is in heaven.
A Puritan Death: John and Thomasine Winthrop "v" 51
We know that in the days that followed Winthrop thought often about the course of his life. A small
sin committed many years before troubled him. As a boy visiting a house he had spied two small books.
Reasoning that the owner had thrown them away, he took them with mm. The memory of that act
grieved him, especially in times of affliction. Now, troubled once more, he made "satisfaction" for the
books, probably by paying something to the former owner.
In January 1617 Winthrop attended a court session, usually an occasion-on for entertainment and
frivolity as well as judicial business. This ti me he felt detached and was bemused by the respect paid by
other men :o wealth and pleasure. Later, on a trip to London, he mentioned that he used to "lose all my
time in my journeys, my eyes running upon every object, and my thoughts varying with every
occasion." But now he passed the time in prayer, psalm singing, and meditation.
In later years Winthrop would identify this period as his time of greatest piety, and he felt
powerfully that Christ accepted and loved him. This was not merely an intellectual conclusion but rather a
pressing conviction of Christ's presence. He wrote, "I was now grown familiar with the Lord Jesus
Christ. He would oft tell me he loved me. I did not doubt to believe him. If I went abroad he "went with
me, -when I returned he came home with me. I talked with him upon the way, he lay down with me and
usually I did awake with him. Now I could go into any company and not lose him."
Thus, after Thomasine's death John Winthrop spent many hours meditating about a being whom he
could love without fear of loss. He took comfort in the belief that there is in this world a reality that
transcends human life. Some men and women who have been possessed by this realization have
concluded that they should withdraw from the world and worship God in a monastery or convent. Some,
like Thomasine, have anticipated a moment when their spirit would leave the world and actually dwell
with God. But John Winthrop did not withdraw from the world. Another aspect of Puritanism helped him
find his way.
Puritanism taught that life was precious as well as transitory, that men have a duty to make their
lives and their societies conform to the will of God. In 1618 John Winthrop married Margaret Tyndal,
daughter of Sir John Tyndal, a local magnate. Their letters reveal a strong human attachment and a
mutual effort to transform earthly love into divine love. With Margaret, John had more children. They
might well have lived out their lives in England, but in 1629 a group of Puritans received a charter
incorporating the Massachusetts Bay Company and began planning a holy community in America.
Winthrop was interested in their work, and because of his legal experience as well as his
52 V" Chapter 3: The English Background
Puritan piety, he was persuaded to serve as governor of the enterprise. In 1630 he led a fleet of eleven
ships to the shores of New England and chose a site on a hilly peninsula in Massachusetts Bay, which
the Puritans named Boston, to be his home in the new land. He must have missed his English home,
but he could console himself for the loss of his native land by recalling that human fulfillment comes
only through the life of the spirit. In that way the piety that had prepared him for Thomasine's death
also prepared John for life in the wilderness of America.
During the first winter in New England, many settlers lived in tents; two hundred died of hunger
and exposure. Nonetheless, Winthrop wrote home to his wife that he was in a "paradise." For him as for
many other Puritans, nothing could be more rewarding than the opportunity America offered to create
communities attuned to the will of God. During John Winthrop's twenty-year association with
Massachusetts Bay, he was elected governor sixteen times. Occasionally he took an unpopular stand, or
the freemen worried about creating a hereditary ruler and Winthrop lost the governorship. But always
the job returned to him. In him were mingled the qualities of piety, good humor, intelligence, and
vision. The people had the wisdom to reward him and themselves by accepting his leadership.
John Winthrop is remembered particularly for some of the words he used in expressing Puritan
ideas. The most famous of all John Winthrop's pronouncements was his description of the ideal
community, set forth in a sermon aboard the Arbella bound for America. He began by saying, "God
Almighty in His most holy and wise providence hath so disposed of the condition of mankind as in all
times some must be rich, some poor; some high and eminent in power and dignity, others mean and in
subjection." That aristocratic conception of government would meet opposition even in his own lifetime.
Other phrases, however, were repeated again and again in Puritan New England and echo still in our
own times. "There are two rules whereby we are to walk, one towards another, justice and mercy,"
Winthrop said. "We must be knit together in this work as one man. .. . We must delight in each other,
make others' conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together." New
Englanders must be so virtuous that other peoples would look on their community as a model of
Christian charity. "We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill," Winthrop said. "The eyes of
all people are upon us."
The grandeur of the Puritan scheme is apparent in phrases such as these. It is also apparent in more
prosaic experiences, such as John
A Puritan Death: John and Thomasine Winthrop
Winthrop's night spent in a forest. One fall evening in 1631 he went t o r a walk near his farmhouse,
taking along a gun in case he should come across a wolf. When he was about a half mile from his
house, n i g h t fell, and Winthrop could not find his way home. Fortunately he came on a native house,
then empty. He built a fire outside and lay down on Indian mats. But he was unable to sleep; he spent
the night gathering wood, walking by the fire, and singing psalms. The religious spirit that had
sustained him many years before as he watched reside Thomasine's bed encouraged him now when
his own life was in danger.
The next day Winthrop located his house, to the great relief of the servants, who had shouted and
shot off their guns the night before, hoping to attract his attention. It was a small adventure, happily
ended. But nothing in John Winthrop's life better typifies his piety, or the pervasive religiosity of the
early Puritans, than the image of the governor of Massachusetts alone by a fire in the middle of the night —
BREMMER, FRANCIS. The Puritan Experiment (1976). Historical survey of Puritanism.
BRIDENBAUGH, CARE. Vexed and Troubled Englishmen (1967). English society on the eve of the Great Migration.
EEDRIDGE, LARRY D., EDITOR. Women and Freedom in Early America (1997). A collection of contemporary essays on the
status of women in early America.
GEDDES, GORDON E. Welcome Joy: Death in Puritan New England (1981). Argues that Puritans often associated death
with the journey to Heaven. (Note contrast to David Stannard book, listed below.)
HAMBRICK-STOWE, CHARLES E. The Practice of Piety (1982). Excellent account of Puritan devotional practices.
MlDDLEKAUt'F, ROBERT. The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals (1971). Intellectual biography of
three Puritan ministers.
MlELER, PERRY. The New England Mind (2 vols., 1939, 1953). Standard intellectual history of the Puritans.
MIELER, PERRY, AND THOMAS H. JOHNSON, EDITORS. The Puritans (2 vols., 1963). Anthology of Puritan writings.
MORGAN, EDMUND S. The Puritan Dilemma (1958). Excellent short biography of John Winthrop.
————. The Puritan Family (1966). Survey of domestic life.
MORISON, SAMUEL ELIOT, ET AE., EDITORS.
Winthrop Papers (2 vols., 1929, 1968). Includes John Winthrop's spiritual musings
and his account of Thomasine's death.
STANNARD, DAVID E. The Puritan Way of Death (1977). Argues that due to Puritan uncertainty about salvation, death was
often a terrifying experience. (The story of Thomasine Winthrop, however, suggests the opposite.)
YOUNGS, J. WILLIAM T. The Congregationalists (1990). Survey of Puritan history in America with biographical sketches of
Puritanism is one of the most important strands in early American culture, but the Puritans can be hard to
comprehend because of their complex religious ideas. In this essay their doctrines are presented in concrete historical
episodes: a personal search for grace, daily life in an English household, and a Puritan encounter with death.
Through these illustrations we can see how Puritans oriented their lives to a divine being while undergoing
recognizable human experiences.
John Winthrop, Thomasine Winthrop, Groton Manor, salvation through grace, Puritan moderation, the ringing of
the bell, "Holy commonwealth"
1. The Puritans believed in salvation through Christ's grace. How did they attempt to bring themselves closer to
2. What kinds of thought and behavior did Puritans discourage? Give specific examples and explain the reasoning
3. What did Puritans mean when they said "wine is from God but drunkenness is from the devil"?
4. What are the chief characteristics of Puritan family life as exemplified by the Winthrops?
5. How did Thomasine's behavior in childbirth and death reflect her Puritan piety?
6. While Thomasine Winthrop was dying, she thought of both God and the devil. Why did she die in apparent
assurance that God had won her soul?
7. Explain this statement: "The piety that prepared Thomasine for death also prepared John for America."
8. John Winthrop's own religious feelings were especially intense after Thomasine's death. Why?
9. In view of their emphasis on the life of the spirit, why did Puritans allow themselves to enjoy good meals and
10. The Winthrop household was typical of preindustrial households in England and America. Describe the
"economy" of the household (how products were produced, exchanged, and consumed), and describe the roles
of husband and wife in the household.